It’s easy to take the hometown band for granted in a city where an international parade of orchestras is constantly filing through, each with its season standout. But a streaming Medici TV broadcast gives an inkling of what happens when the New York Philharmonic goes on the road and becomes that honored guest. In May, music director Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic musicians donned white lab coats and fanned out through the Gläserne Manufaktur, Volkswagen’s glass-walled assembly plant in Dresden, which was festooned with suspended car parts. The occasion was the German site-specific performance of Kraft, the gloriously deafening percussion extravaganza from 1985 by Magnus Lindberg. Players beat on fenders, mufflers, and oil pans. The audience responded in kind, with a barrage of happy noise. One critic complained that the piece evokes the clangorous auto industry of yesteryear: Assembling a car these days is, it turns out, gentler on the eardrums.
Gilbert has a reputation as an effective salesman of the avant-garde, but he’s often dismissed as a bit of a plodder in the established repertoire. That unjust assessment says something about the embattled music world, which craves flammable excitement but regularly loses faith in nuance. To the despair of marketing departments everywhere, Gilbert’s is a generation of post-celebrity maestros. Aside from Gustavo Dudamel, conductors under 50 can walk around freely and undisguised; the world is happy to ignore them. Gilbert isn’t exactly straining for panache, either. He addresses the audience in a wry, somnolent rumble, and moves his body with more efficiency than grace. His performances avoid whip-crack fortissimos, car-chase tempos, or details polished to a blinding gloss. He offers audiences plenty to listen to but doesn’t beg them to swoon.
I’m sure Gilbert has led some unmemorable concerts with the New York Philharmonic; the proof is that I can’t recall them. What I do remember is a Juilliard staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, by turns buoyant, tender, and dark; a lot of downy, luxuriant Brahms; and the way he skimmed the crests of roiling strings in Bruckner’s Third Symphony, then pulled back on a crescendo, letting the ear wait for the coming roar before he unleashed its full force. He led a performance of the Bach B minor Mass that made a powerful case for wresting the work back from specialists and performing it with an anachronistic but rich and supple ensemble. He can do searing violence, too: There was not a perfunctory second in Luigi Dallapiccola’s 1949 opera Il Prigioniero, from the opening slash chords to Gerald Finley’s sensitive performance as the doomed but hopeful detainee.
I have spent a lot of time watching Gilbert rehearse, teach, and coach, and what has stuck with me is the way he travels through a musical landscape with a naturalist’s vigilance, alert to moments of drama even before they happen, knowing that a distant, barely audible murmur portends a calamitous event nearby. Last September, he opened the season with The Rite of Spring, a work that in its centennial year has had conductors trying to outdo each other in rhythmic savagery. Gilbert gave the chunk-chunk-chunk sections plenty of muscle, but you could feel him want to linger in the more atmospheric passages, like the hushed opening of Part II, with its night garden full of jittery tremolos, half-heard distant trumpet tunes, and sighing mists. He created an audible landscape, a three-dimensional world for Stravinsky’s pagan tribe to inhabit. (That concert is included in the impressive set of live recordings that Gilbert and the Philharmonic have assembled on iTunes and emusic.)
In Ives’s Symphony No. 4, a few months later, the sense of teeming spaciousness was even more vivid. With its multiple ensembles weaving wildly at different tempos, separate soundtracks jangling together, the piece can easily come off as a mess. But Gilbert panned across the great, crazy score, savoring the festive chaos, then zooming in to follow some buried thread of melody, or opening up a moment of quiet clarity. I had the feeling that I was listening to the sounds of an entire city rising up to the skyline, a counterpoint of sweetness and cacophony.
Like most of his colleagues, Gilbert spends much of his life communing with long-dead greats. But he also pursues more recent music with audible passion. In April, for the Philharmonic’s new-music series Contact!, Gilbert conducted the Korean-German composer Unsuk Chin’s Gougalon: Scenes From a Street Theater, a raucous and colorful evocation of an invented folk music. Scored for a percussion ensemble embellished by trumpets and winds, the piece drops the listener in some Asian alleyway full of fried-food hawkers and musicians banging on pipes and plastic barrels.
Gilbert has been enthusiastic about Contact!, and so have the musicians, but the series hasn’t quite found its footing. The twice-yearly programs feel like an afterthought, marginal both to the orchestra’s identity and to New York’s vigorous new-music scene. That’s about to change. The NY Phil Biennial, which launches next spring, will be the music world’s answer to the Whitney’s regular roundups of recent art. With a dozen concerts over eleven days, ranging from big orchestral blowouts to tiny chamber works and from famous sages to composers not even Gilbert had ever heard of, the festival promises to focus scattered glints of new music into a bright beam. And the name Biennial suggests that it won’t just be a one-off.
Despite his expertise at creating spatial illusions in music, Gilbert still has a hankering for the physical reality of a really nice place to play. Avery Fisher Hall is not actually terrible, but disappointment clings to it like cigar smoke. The only sound that can be heard with perfect clarity is a perpetual cantata of complaint. Backstage is a desperate zone of sclerotic elevators, yellowed walls, noisy fluorescent tubes, and hallways piled with cartons untouched for years. The auditorium has been nipped and tucked enough that nobody thinks a minor intervention will help much; the only option appears to be a virtually new building inserted into the existing travertine shell. It’s a fearsome architectural puzzle—there’s no room to expand in any direction (except, possibly, and only slightly, up)—and a colossal fundraising job. The organization has said it’s moving ahead anyway, which all but guarantees that Gilbert will remain through 2019, long enough to see the orchestra through disruption and back into the home it will have earned. It’s a good thing he’s game for adventures.